The Google Nexus 9 is available for purchase from the Play Store starting Monday. The $400 slate is among the first batch of devices to ship with Android 5.0 Lollipop on board. It is a huge step up from last year's Nexus 7 in terms of size, specs, and cost. Does the performance increase match the size and price jump? Well, not entirely.
The Nexus 9 is an attractive and well-made piece of hardware. As far as looks go, it represents a natural evolution from the minimalist design of the 2013 Nexus 7. The slate is made of aluminum, but it's covered in a soft-touch finish that gives it a nice amount of grip so the device won't slip out of your hands.
Google increased the screen size and changed the aspect ratio compared to the N7, jumping from 7 inches with a 16:9 ratio to 8.9 inches with a 4:3 ratio. This change means the N9 is significantly bigger and heavier -- its footprint lands smack in between the Apple iPad Mini and iPad Air. Some users might find it the perfect size, but it is a bit heavy for my taste.
The N9's screen is fantastic. It squeezes the same number of pixels (2,048 x 1,536) into a smaller space than the iPad Air, which means it has higher pixel density. I found the display bright, colorful, and incredibly sharp.
[Apple's newest iPad has lots to like. Read iPad Air 2: My First Week.]
Buttons and controls are kept to the bare minimum. The screen lock button and volume toggles are both on the right side of the tablet. The lock button is rather hard to find and somewhat weak; the volume toggle has a better profile and better action. There's a headphone jack on top and a microUSB port on the bottom.
The N9 doesn't support memory cards, and it comes in only 16-GB and 32-GB variants. Since the device is made by HTC, the device features stereo speakers when it's held sideways. They sound great, and the N9 is an awesome video machine. Battery life is quite good; I charged the device only once prior to testing it for five days. The 8-megapixel camera also does a decent job, as long as you have plenty of light available.
After spending a few days with it, you could say I'm smitten with the hardware. But the software is an entirely different story.
The N9 runs Android 5.0 Lollipop. I'm won't say much about the operating system, other than that it is gorgeous. Google's Material Design is colorful, modern, and simply beautiful. The basic usability of the OS is about the same as earlier versions of Android, but every app has been overhauled with the new look and new features. Trust me -- you're going to like it.
However, the N9 is completely riddled with bugs, as if termites have infested the core. Apps crashed all over the place, the system froze frequently, and the device is almost completely unable to access the Internet.
I communicated back and forth with Google over the weekend and received an updated build of the operating system late Sunday. According to Google, the build of my review unit is the same one consumers will have when they receive their devices. The new OS build improved some aspects of the N9's performance – including app crashes and freezing -- but didn't resolve the connectivity issues. For example, I was unable to load basic Web pages in the Chrome browser while surfing, nor could I download or update apps from the Play Store. I received a second review unit, and it exhibited many of the same problems. In short, I don't think Google and HTC have truly finished baking the N9's software. Until they do, it is next to useless -- which is a shame.
Hopefully Google and HTC have new builds of the operating system on deck that resolve the problems facing the Nexus 9. For my money, the WiFi connectivity problems are the most severe. A tablet that's unable to load a simple Web page is not a tablet I'd spend $400 to buy.
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